By Jay Lovinger
Page 2

LEDYARD, CONNECTICUT -- For an aging ex-hippie like myself, the FARGO "convention" at Foxwoods this past weekend was like a trip back to the '60s & only with poker chips instead of LSD tabs.

FARGO (Foxwoods Annual Recreational Gambling Outing), founded in 1997 by Bill Alan Hafey, is an informal group of poker nuts who meet at Foxwoods once a year for a weekend of competition and theorizing (and, it is rumored, a bit of imbibing. Technically, there is no official "membership" -- there is a mailing list of about 200, and they consider themselves an Internet Group. The vast majority of the 160 or so FARGOites who attended this year's festivities seemed, to this observer, to have at least three things in common:

1.) A love for the game as pure as the driven snow;

2.) A profound respect for one another;

3) A wonderful sense of humor.

Regular readers of this column will note that, while I believe these characteristics are typical of those of us who made it through the '60s more or less intact, they don't begin to describe your average player in this Golden Age of Lone Gunfighter Survival of the Fittest.

POKER'S DOMESTIC SIDE
We let the chips fall where they may when Mrs. Jackpot Jay answers the question on everyone's mind:

What's it like living with a journalist on the poker tour?

However, despite the fact that as a group, they are the poker world's answer to St. Francis of Assisi, no one should underestimate the ability of the average FARGO-ite to separate you from your hard-earned money. Among the 160 who attended this weekend's festivities were 2004 World Series of Poker winner Greg Raymer; Matt Matros, who finished third in this year's World Poker Tour Championship (winning more than $700,000); and Russell Rosenblum, who finished fifth in the WPT Championship this year (winning $330,000) and sixth in the 2002 WSOP.

The first major event of the weekend was the Bill Alan Memorial Pairs Tournament (Alan, who died just a few days earlier, was a FARGO original) -- a two-person team competition, with partners alternating for 20-minute rounds of Omaha high-low and limit hold 'em. Since I was a newbie, Joan Hadley, who does most of the organizational heavy lifting for FARGO, had to hustle me up a partner. She found me a dandy -- Russ Fox, a California financial advisor who just happens to be an Omaha high-low expert. To put it mildly, that's a game with which I'm only vaguely familiar.

Though Fox and I kind of dribbled off about a third of the way through the tournament -- we never had much with which to work -- it was a memorable experience for me. I've written before about how the lowest moment for a poker player is when he or she busts out of a tournament. Not only are you not allowed to play anymore, but everybody still playing acts as if you never existed in the first place. Not so at a FARGO tournament. Whenever anybody busted out, everybody still left stopped what he or she was doing and clapped. Enthusiastically. I'm not kidding -- it gave me goosebumps.

Another striking thing about the tournament was how intensely everybody wanted to win, despite the small prize money -- less than $3,000 for the winning team -- and yet how good-natured the players were with one another ... and even with the spectators.

People kept coming up to Raymer and asking him to sign everything -- old newspaper clippings, magazine covers, hats, visors, shirts, etc. He never failed to oblige. I asked him if he had ever signed anybody's bald head.

"No," he said.

"Well, I'd like to be the first," I said.

"OK," he said with a straight face.

I thought about it for a moment. "Nah, I was just bluffing. Anyway, it would be bad for my image."

"I don't see how it could possibly hurt any," he said.

Later, when the pairs event had narrowed down to six teams, it was Raymer's turn to bet. He showily shook his left wrist -- the one with his gaudy WSOP bracelet -- and said, "Raaaaaaaay-se."

Rosenblum, who was watching his partner, Steve "Crunch" Daniels, try to hang in against the world champion, said, with mock exasperation, "It's always all about the money with you, isn't it, Greg?"

Another spectator complained, "If he has a bracelet to shake at people, it's only fair that everybody have one."

"That's what a lot of people say," Raymer said. "'If he could win one, anybody could.'"

One of the highlights of the weekend for me was the post-play Friday night dinner lecture/stand-up comedy routine/audience Q &A emceed by Raymer, Matros and Rosenblum.

The audience was most intrigued by Raymer's intense duel with Mike "The Mouth" Matusow during the WSOP, which has been a featured part of ESPN's broadcasts of the event. For those who did not see it, Matusow told Raymer he would knock him out of the tournament because he, Matusow, had big ones while Raymer only had teeny-weenie little ones ... or words to that effect. A few moments later, in a patently insincere gesture, Matusow offered to shake hands with Raymer, who famously refused and then wrote something down in his ever-present notebook.

Someone asked Raymer about his most satisfying moment in winning the WSOP.

"Monetarily, the last hand was the best," he said, referring to the full boat that won him $5 million. "But in every other way, the hand that crippled Matusow was the most satisfying. My only regret is that it wasn't me who finally knocked him out."

"What did you write in the notebook?" a woman in the audience yelled out.

"It was the end of the round," Raymer said. "I wrote down my chip count, like I always do at that point. That way, if you come back to the table and a couple of $25,000 chips are missing, you can tell the tournament director and have him check the surveillance cameras."

"I've gotta admit, I was hoping for something a little more juicy," the woman said. "I'm kinda disappointed."

Raymer smiled. "Actually, it was a note about about a hit man I use. 'Guido & re: Matusow.'"

In between the comedy, there was a lot of wisdom bouncing around for anyone who cared to grab it. Matros talked about the Survival Fallacy -- the idea that you should not gamble in tournaments with only a small edge, because once you lose all your chips, you are out.

"I used to believe that, too," he said. "But now I've come around to the opposite point of view -- take advantage of every small edge you can, unless you are such a great player that you can expect to have a bigger edge later on. If you think about it, it's more rewarding, financially, to come in third in a tournament once than to come in 12th, say, 15 times."

In other words, when you have shot, you should take it -- a philosophy that I know, from previous conversations, Raymer shares.

Rosenblum, who in his non-poker life owns a law firm specializing in venture capital and real estate, discussed the importance of taking a rest-and-relaxation break after big hands in big tournaments, win or lose, so he can calm down and think clearly enough to make finely calibrated decisions. "If I have to, I'll run off to the bathroom," he said, "not that I have a teeny-weenie bladder or anything ... "

"But do you have teeny-weenie cojones?" asked Raymer, echoing his arch-nemesis Matusow.

Before Rosenblum could answer, his wife of five years, Anne Mazzola, yelled out from the back of the room, "The answer is no."

"Ah," said Rosenblum, a huge smile of satisfaction on his face, "more jewelry for the wife."

Afterwards, I asked Matros to send me galleys for his first book, "The Making of a Poker Player," which will be published by Citadel Press next April. His brother Nick, also a fine player, told me they had been walking through Foxwoods the night before, and their father, Bill, had seen my picture on the wall, posted with photos of all the other degenerates who have already won seats in November's $10,000 buy-in World Poker Tour event at Foxwoods.

"Hey, I'm pretty sure I went to college with that guy," Bill said. "How many Jay Lovingers can there be in the world?"

Later that night, looking for a game without too much of a wait, I decided to take a shot at the only table without a waiting list -- a $10-20 Omaha high-low -- and found myself sitting across from Bill and Nick. Bill and I (who, in fact, both attended Harpur College in Binghamton, New York, for a few years in the mid-'60s) spent three hours reminiscing about various friends and miscreants from the good old days, much to the annoyance of the other players.

I should mention, however, that I was appropriately punished for this misbehavior by losing $300 before I finally shut up and slinked away at about 3 a.m. I'm not sure how Bill fared, though Nick did have to admonish him on several occasions not to reveal his hole cards during hands. Oh, how sharper than a serpent's tooth is a card-playing son's disdain! (King Lear would have sympathized.)

Regular readers of this column may recall that one of my pre-journey goals was to get well-known stars of the game to play me, head-to-head, for a meaningful amount of money while I "interview" them. So far, I've had little luck, since it's pretty much of a lose-lose situation for the stars. If they lose to me, that's not good ... especially since I'll write about it. If they win, so what? There's not much glory in beating a journalist at poker.

On Saturday night, however, I got to play in the fifth Fossilman Invitational Heads-Up Tournament (officially known as FIHUPT5), an annual event organized and hosted by Raymer. Because of his WSOP win, there were so many more entrants this year that the tournament had to be moved from Raymer's home in Stonington (about six miles from Foxwoods) to a local VFW hall.

As luck would have it, I found myself in the same six-person flight as Raymer, and the tourney's format calls for everybody in a flight to play heads-up (no-limit, 100 chips, eight-minute levels, starting at 1-2) with everybody else in their group. The player with the best match record in each flight then advances to the championship round against the winners of the seven other groups. I'm not sure what happens then, since I finished with a 1-4 record in my group and decided to start the long drive back to New York City ASAP.

However, before I left, I got my chance to go heads-up with the world champ. I've never been so nervous in my life -- I guess I wanted to impress him a little too much. To make a gruesome story even shorter than it was, within about two minutes, I was trailing something like 140 chips to 60. He dealt me a K-J suited. While I was contemplating how to play the hand, Raymer went all-in. I thought about it for a second, then called.

As he turned over 10-10, he said, "It's a horse race." Of course, as so often happened during the WSOP, it was a horse race he won.

"Does this count as our head-to-head match?" he asked.

I shook my head no.

"OK," he said, kindly, "we'll try it again some other time soon."

As I drove off toward the Connecticut Turnpike, I thought about how much the FARGO weekend was like a typical '60s weekend for me. I ended up dazed and confused, but somehow smiling inside as I wandered off into the dark night and an unknown future.

HEY, IRS: HOW JAY IS DOING IN HIS NEW CAREER

Last week: Lost $1,840.

CTD (career-to-date): plus $32,609.

Jay Lovinger, a former managing editor of Life and a founding editor of Page 2, is writing on his poker adventures for ESPN.com and also writing a book for HarperCollins.


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